Jul 18 2018

Turkish refugees: “Our body is here, but our soul is there”

Political upheaval in Turkey and fighting in the country’s Kurdish majority Southeast region have led to a surge in job dismissals, detainments, and court cases, leaving many to flee the country.

These conditions don’t leave much of a future in Turkey for many. Some are leaving Turkey after receiving lengthy prison sentences, and others are leaving out of concern that they could be arrested.

The two women who spoke with Ahval News went to Europe as refugees, and they are just two of dozens of other women who have felt forced to leave the country. While they have different stories, many share two commonalities: love of their country but a pressure to leave Turkey due to a lack of justice.

One reason for this is the number of presidential decrees issued by President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan since the foiled military putsch in July 2016. These decrees have called for the sacking of civil servants including police, army officers, academics, and teachers. According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom, more than 160,000 civil servants have been dismissed as a result of these decrees since July 2016.

Mine Çetinkaya was one of those dismissed in 2017. She spent twenty years working as a teacher in Turkey as part of the Ministry of Education. She was also a member of Eğitim-Sen (Education and Science Workers’ Union), a left-wing trade union of educators.

Her story started when she was arrested as part of a broader investigation in 2009. When asked why a lawsuit was opened against her, she said, “I was arrested because of my involvement in the union. They established [terrorist] organization connections by construing it with my involvement in the union,” she said.

She served a nine-month prison sentence, but her case was still ongoing. Çetinkaya was then sentenced to an extra six years in prison when the case was concluded. Upon learning this, she fled.

Mine Çetinkaya

"I first thought that I would serve the six-year sentence. Then, there was another case opened about an anti-war protest I participated in as an observer. I was torn. There was a good chance that I would go to prison and not leave. It appeared to be six years, but this number would have gone up [while being] inside.”

Sixty-year-old Zarife Atık was involved in local politics and also left Turkey to avoid detention. She had been a provincial co-chair during the June 7, 2015 general elections for the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), and she was also a member of the HDP party parliament.  

Atık also had lawsuits filed against her in Turkey. She went to Holland for a holiday four months ago and decided not to go back to Turkey over concerns of being detained and the pressure put on the opposition in recent years. The lawsuits were not her first run-in with the law in Turkey. Atık had already been to prison for ten months after protesting the military coup in 1980.


When asked about the political climate in Turkey in recent years, Atık said that the collapse of the Peace Process as a major a blow to Turkey’s democracy. The Peace Process was a ceasefire to end the two-decades-long struggle between the government and the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party. However, the peace agreement broke down in the summer of 2015.

"People were in need of reconciliation in Turkey. It was a process that everyone enjoyed. Those in political power buried it. Turkey's democracy started dying in the November 1 [2015] elections."

Although she lives abroad, Atık says that she continues to closely follow developments in Turkey and commented, “There are thousands like me. There is nothing going forward. Still, I’ll continue to be the opposition.”

Atık criticized President Erdoğan and highlighted that the recent change from a parliamentary system to a presidential system of government shows the lack of independence within the government.

"Turkey has become a one-man regime. The one guy designs everything about the regime with presidential decrees. There is no parliament in Turkey as Erdoğan has assembled the parliament himself. Turkey is going through a dark and difficult period."

The journey to Europe can be a perilous one for some.

Because the government banned her from leaving the country, Çetinkaya first illegally crossed into Greece and then went onto Switzerland. She stayed in poor conditions at a refugee camp for seven months in Switzerland before being able to move into a house. Çetinkaya considers herself lucky.

“Because there are some people who stay in the camps for two or three years. I'm better now. But I don't have a house of my own. I don't have the right to work. I'm just learning the language.”

Although her living situation improved, Çetinkaya isn’t happy in Switzerland and said, “I had a profession in Turkey. I had a job. I had to come here with a backpack. My whole life was left behind.”

Atik echoed a similar sentiment. Her daughters and husband are in Turkey. She says that after a certain age, it's difficult to leave your loved ones behind for life in another country.

"There’s nothing as bad as being stuck in one place. Your life is restricted. You condemned yourself to something else. You try to familiarize yourself with the feeling of staying here. This is not something to get used to. Our body is here, but our soul is there."

She continued by saying, "I am speaking in pain. Staying here is a very painful thing. But this is a process, and that's how it goes."

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.